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Tampa Bay Rays: Spring Training Information
[ April 5, 2009 at 12:36 PM ] [ ] [ Full Story ]  [ Filed under: Rays | Top ]
[ Tagged: , , ]
By Scott Caruso - Rays of Light
Location: Charlotte Sports Park, Port Charlotte, FL
Pitchers and Catchers Report: Feb. 15th
First Game: Feb. 25th vs Cincinnati

Projected Opening Day Lineup

1. Akinori Iwamura (2B)
2. B.J. Upton (CF)
3. Carlos Pena (1B)
4. Evan Longoria (3B)
5. Carl Crawford (LF)
6. Pat Burrell (DH)
7. Gabe GrossGabe Kapler (RF)
8. Dioner Navarro (C)
9. Jason Bartlett (SS)

Projected Rotation

1. James Shields
2. Scott Kazmir
3. Matt Garza
4. Andy Sonnanstine
5. Jeff Niemann

Projected Bullpen

Middle: Brian Shouse, Jason Hammel, Joe Nelson
Set-Up: Grant Balfour, J.P. Howell, Dan Wheeler
Closer: Troy Percival
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Key Battles

Offense: There are virtually no questions among the position players heading into camp this year. You could argue that catcher is a bit up for grabs, for instance. The real battles are for the right to be the "first player called up" in the event of an injury.

Catcher: Shawn Riggans has never been a particularly good big league player, but he's a hard-nosed kid and Joe Maddon really seems to like him. Since he's been so horribly injury-prone during his short career, the Rays would do well to have a few options available at AAA Durham should the same fate befall him this year. John Jaso - a highly-touted young catcher - will be available, though there's some internal discussion as to whether or not he should shift to first base or a corner outfield spot, as his defense behind the plate is less than stellar. Michel Hernandez was on the Rays' postseason roster last year because of an injury to Riggans, but its unlikely that he will supplant Shawn unless a similar fate strikes him down this year.

For Rays fans, it's a bit of a catch-22. Riggans is that guy who seems to come up with key hits in clutch situations when you aren't expecting much out of him, so he's become quite a likeable guy. On the other hand, his offense is generally below-par, and he has serious trouble throwing out baserunners. It's hard to imagine a situation where the Rays stick with him much beyond this season.

Infield: As far as the 25-man roster goes, the Rays are all set. Carlos Pena, Akinori Iwamura, Evan Longoria, and Jason Bartlett all return to their familar spots from 2008. Willy Aybar and Ben Zobrist provide depth behind them. Young shortstop Reid Brignac waits in the wings for a chance to play in the event of a long-term injury (and will almost certainly be given a chance to win a starting job in 2010).

The real wild-card in the equation is Morgan Ensberg, recently signed to a minor-league deal with incentives if he makes the Major League roster. He's been a shell of his former self in recent years, but if he can come anywhere close to that player who was an All-Star in 2005, the Rays have a highly capable backup at first and third (and even second and left, he says) who can hit for a ton of power against left-handed pitching. Keep an eye on him; if there's an injury to anyone significant, Ensberg might yet play a role for this club.

Outfield: The only real "battle" - per sé - is to see who might fill out the 25th spot on the roster if B.J. Upton starts the year on the disabled list. Since the Rays will start the year playing in cold weather, there's talk that they will hold Upton - who had surgery on a shoulder that he dislocated in 2008 - out until they return home for the second week of the season. This seems to be the most likely scenario in which Fernando Perez earns a spot on the roster, though Justin Ruggiano and Elliot Johnson will probably be given chances to win roster spots as well. Either way, whoever earns that spot is almost certainly back to Durham once Upton returns in mid-April.

Meanwhile, Gabe Gross and Gabe Kapler will share the right field duties, facing right- and left-handed pitching respectively.

Pitching: The Rays' bread-and-butter in 2008. The crew that comes to camp this year looks even better on paper than the corps that brought the Rays to the World Series.

Fifth Starter: James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, and Andy Sonnanstine are locks for the starting rotation. As for that fifth starter hole? It's a 3-horse race between all-world prospect David Price, Jeff Niemann, and Jason Hammel.

Though most people simply assume Price will begin the year in the Rays' starting rotation, the reality isn't quite as clear. There are definite concerns about his ability to throw a third pitch at the big league level yet; his fastball and slider are already great, but his changeup still needs some work. The big question: is it better for him to develop the changeup for 3 months at Durham (where it will also be easier to control his innings) and then join the rotation midseason, or should he just work it out at the big league level. That question would probably be easy to answer if not for the fact that righties Niemann and Hammel are both out of options, and would need to be put through waivers to be sent outright to Durham.

In the case of Niemann, he's been a top Rays prospect for a number of years, but injuries and inconsistency have plagued him for as long as I can remember. Still, between he and Hammel - who as never been particularly impressive at the big-league level - Niemann is probably the favorite for the spot should the Rays decide to let Price work on that changeup in Durham.

Long-Relief: The loser of the Niemann-Hammel race (if there even is a race), will almost certainly get a chance to stick in the bullpen. Manager Joe Maddon has said recently that he thinks Niemann has good stuff for a reliever, so it's possible the Rays might just stick him in the pen and see what happens, knowing that the rotation spot is going to be David Price's in a few months anyways. And, to be honest, I suspect the Rays wouldn't be as heartbroken about losing Hammel via waivers as they would with losing Niemann.

The Rest of the Bullpen: Troy Percival is still slotted as the Rays' closer, but the entire makeup of the bullpen relies on whether or not he is healthy to start the season. If he is ready to go (and the Rays are being very tight-lipped about that), then look for guys like Grant Balfour, J.P. Howell, and Dan Wheeler to fill the primary setup roles. If Percival is not ready, then Maddon will likely employ a three-headed closer like he did last season when Percival was hurt, with any one of those three being ready to step in on any given night. There are legitimate questions as to whether or not Balfour and Howell can replicate their 2008 success and if Wheeler is now on the way down on his career, but for now, they are the foundation for the Rays' pen.

Chad Bradford was slotted to be an important middle-innings piece, but he recently had surgery and will be out until at least late-May or June. That opens up a spot for someone like Hammel to make the roster. Meanwhile, newly-acquired Brian Shouse will attack from the left side while former Florida Marlin Joe Nelson joins the group from the right.

If Percival is unable to go come Opening Day, the Rays have an interesting mix of arms that they'll look to fill that roster spot with. Lance Cormier was brought in from Baltimore, while Derek Rodriguez was brought in from Chicago in the Rule 5 Draft. Keep in mind that if Rodriguez doesn't make the roster, the Rays must offer him back to the White Sox, so it might give the team some added incentive to let him make the team out of Spring Training. Other lesser-known commodities like Dale Thayer, Randy Choate, Dewon Day, and Winston Abreu will also get long looks, but are all likely headed to Durham.

What To Expect: There should be some noise about Percival early on in the workouts; we should know if that's a roster spot locked in or one that's up for grabs, which will go a long way towards determining how interesting the Rays' Spring really is. As for the Price-Niemann-Hammel situation? We might not know how that shakes down until the final pitch is thrown in Grapefruit action.

Scott covers the Rays for the blog Rays of Light on the View from the Bleachers network.

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